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Rank the Vote: Comparing Voting in Ireland and the United States

by Robert Fekete // Published June 24, 2013
house of the oireachtas1

The following is the first post in FairVote's series on the Irish electoral system and the 2013 Convention on the Constitution in Ireland.

If you ask Americans what it means to "vote," they might say "look at the list of candidates and pick the one you want." But in Ireland, people see voting differently. The Irish vote by looking at a list of candidates and ranking them in order of preference.

Underscoring how voting in Ireland has come to mean ranking are the recent deliberations of an Irish citizens' assembly that is reviewing the constitution and making recommendations that will appear on the national ballot. Participants overwhelmingly backed keeping their ranked choice voting system for parliamentary elections - and even the main alternative under consideration, a version of Germany's mixed member system, could have include a ranked choice ballot.

Ireland uses a fair representation voting method of electing its Parliament that has been the most common form of proportional representation in English-speaking nations. Often called "single transferable vote" based on how the ballot-count works, in the United States we call it ranked choice voting - or, simply, "choice voting." Voters rank candidates in order of choice in districts that elect more than one winner, with the share of votes necessary to win seats higher or lower depending on the number of seats elected.

Embraced by John Stuart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government, choice voting today is used by every voter in Ireland (parliament, local elections and the single winner version for president), Northern Ireland (provincial assembly and local elections), Scotland (local government), Australia (senate, single winner form for parliament and in either single winner or multi-winner for nearly all regional and state elections) and New Zealand (health boards and some cities like Wellington) and American cities like Cambridge (MA) and Minneapolis (MN).

In Ireland, members of parliament represent constituencies electing between three and five winners. To show how such a system might work in the United States, we have drawn multi-winner super district plans for every state, presenting them with a flash map and detailed state analysis. The difference it would make for voter choice and the balance of representation in the House is remarkable.

Ireland's use of multi-winner constituencies creates competitive races for every seat even as the major parties typically win at least one seat in most of the country. In the 2011 elections, voters were in a mood for change after the economy took a huge hit triggered by a banking crisis. Of 166 seats overall, 45 sitting members were defeated in the election, with the resulting parliament having a near-majority of 76 new members, including a modest number of independents and candidates from minor parties.

Irish parties don't fall into the left-right groupings typical of the United States. The dominant party over time has been Fianna FaÌ’il, founded by Irish independence leader Éamon de Valera and perhaps best described as a populist party ready to use government to advance citizen interests. The current governing party is Fine Gael, more classically to the center-right, but when in government, usually in coalition with the Labour Party, which opposes Fianna Fail from the left. The Sinn FeÌ’in party has left-leaning policy preferences that are organized around the goal of independence. The Green Party is on the left, but it was in the previous government was in coalition with Fianna FaÌ’il.

Over the past 30 years, incumbent governments have often been stable except for when scandals lead a change in the governing coalition. For most of that period Ireland experienced a remarkable economic boom - exposing it to the global financial meltdown in 2008, but from which it has recovered better than most other nations suffering similar problems. During that time, the largest partisan candidates in nearly all of Ireland's legislative district, regularly won across the country and had chances to be in the government. In 2011, for example, Fianna FaÌ’il, Fine Gael, Labour Party and Sinn FeÌ’in ran in most districts and in Cork North-Central, in fact all won

With their use of multi-seat constituencies, the large majority of voters in the constituency are represented by a candidate for whom they voted. One reason that Irish results accurately reflect voters in each constituency is the use of a ranked choice ballot. Irish voters do not waste their votes on either a candidate who cannot be elected or a candidate who already has enough votes to be elected, because the use of rankings allows voters to have their votes count for a preferred candidate they can really help elect. In a single winner race, this ranked choice voting system - often called instant runoff voting - allows votes to coalesce behind the strongest candidate able to earn majority support over his or her strongest opponent.

While it takes 50% plus one to be sure of winning with ranked choice voting in a single winner race, the percentage necessary to win is lowered based on the number of seats elected - with that percentage defined as the lowest number of votes that only the winning number of candidates can win. That threshold is one more than one-third of the vote when electing two candidates, one more than a quarter of the vote when electing three, one more than a fifth of the vote when electing four and so on.

As a result, the Irish threshold to win seats varies between about 17% of the vote in a five-winner district and 25% in a five-seat district. This educed threshold for election means more voters meaningfully contribute to the election of a preferred candidate. This chart exactly what that means for representation

Irish Elections, 2011

 

Total

Fine Gael

Fianna Fail

Labour Party

Sinn Fein

Other

Districts with a representative

43

42

17

31

14

19

Votes to Seats (measured by first votes)

100

36.1% →44.6%

17.5%→11.4%

19.5%→19.9%

9.9%→8.8%

17.0%→12.0%

Total Seats Won, share of seats

166

75*

19

33

14

21

* The 'speaker' of the Irish Parliament is an elected member of the governing party, but is independent from the party and doesn't vote.

In 2011, not a single district elected representatives from only one party-a fair reflection of the fact that where we live doesn't determine what we think and what our political interests might be. Furthermore, when Fine Gael and Labour discuss policy preferences as the governing coalition, they have at least one representative from every Irish constituency. Opposition parties are also represented in almost every district. The result is a government more likely to be responsive to the whole nation, but also hardly any voters left to be "represented" by people they strongly oppose.

The Irish choice voting system contrasts sharply with the electoral system currently used here in the US, where we use a winner-take-all system of "plurality voting" Under our system, states divide into districts only electing one member each. Voter in each district cast a non-ranked-choice ballot, and whichever candidate that has the most votes is elected.

Under plurality, candidates with little support have the potential to be the one representative of a diverse district. Using the example of Cork North-Central in the 2011 general election, had plurality rules been used, Jonathan O'Brien of Sinn FeÌ’in would have been elected with only 7,923 votes out of 52,1307 or with the support of just 15.2% of the constituency. This is a little extreme as there were 15 candidates running for the 4 seats in the constituency, with two candidates from both the Labour party and the Fine Gael party which split those parties' votes.

Under a single-seat district system, even if candidates can get majority support in a single district, voters may still be underrepresented over all. For example, out of Maryland's eight congressional districts, only one is represented by a Republican, which is close to 14% of the state's delegation. But over all, about 39% of +Maryland voters prefer Republicans to represent them.

With single-member districts in U.S. congressional elections, hardened partisanship virtually guarantees that even a weak candidate from the dominant party will be elected. This domination of a single party in a district leads to wasted votes as the election becomes a foregone conclusion immediately following the dominant party's nomination.

Now if Maryland was able to use our fair voting plan with a three-seat district and a five-seat district, its three-seat district would elect one Republican and its five-seat district would elect two Republicans, which would result in Maryland having more balanced representation between the two major parties. The Democratic representatives would more fully represent the party's diversity as well - including, perhaps, increasing its number of women representatives from one

The U.S. Constitution does not force states to elect congressional representatives from single-seat districts; states are free to elect them how they choose, subject to federal regulation. That means that only statutory and state law changes would be needed to adopt an American version of the Irish system for congressional and state legislative elections.

In fact, the U.S. has used similar systems to the Irish model in the past, and some place in the U.S. still do so. Illinois elected its state house of representatives by a similar method for over 100 years, and choice voting has historically been used to elect city councils throughout the nation. As the U.S. faces more and more difficulties in electing a responsive and representative congress and considers solutions, the experience of Ireland has much to teach us.